Scrap the Tariffs on textiles from Sri Lanka, Thailand and other flood-hit areas

Boris Johnson’s column out today deplores the high rates of tariffs on textiles and calls on Brussels to address the continuing injustice to Sri Lankan undergarments in particular:

The cuts could be spread, over time, to all the third world, and in the meantime they would stop jobs in Sri Lanka being relocated elsewhere, and encourage local industry.

All it would take is one meeting in Brussels, and less than three minutes to do

Sri Lanka deserves more than silence – cut tariffs on its bras

By all accounts the British nation put on a sensational performance yesterday. On the stroke of 12 the radios were dumb. The TVs stopped their blurting. The London Eye ceased its slow revolution and people stood in the streets, heads bowed in respect or raised in silent contemplation. Anyone so forgetful as to keep jabbering around the water-cooler was instantly shushed, and across the whole 455 million-strong EU it was the same, as people showed their solidarity – on the urgings of the European Council of ministers – with the sufferings of those on the shores of the Indian Ocean.

And of course there were a few who chose to be perverse. They pointed out that three minutes was really quite a long time, when you consider that we only keep silent for two minutes to honour the dead of the two world wars, the hundreds of thousands who voluntarily gave their lives that we might live in freedom.

These crabby types – and I confess I was one – were tempted to say that to fight and die for your country was a morally different kind of thing from being engulfed by a natural tragedy, no matter how awful, and that we ought to make sure to keep special our remembrance of that wartime sacrifice, and not to devalue it with too many minutes’ silence for other things.

There were some who made predictable complaints about “outbreaks of mass emotion” and “the age of Diana”; and there were some who wondered, a little caustically, whether this interesting new British phenomenon, the desire to exhibit collective feeling, was the welling up of an instinct suppressed by the decline of church-going.

But the important point, when the silence was finally broken, was that we of the curmudgeonly tendency did not appear to be in the majority. Some of us may have been initially resentful at the idea of being coerced, by some Brussels directive, into such a display; and yet by the end we were forced to concede that there must be something good in the simple fact that we spent some time, as a nation, meditating on the grim lives and deaths of those in developing countries.

There is a corner of my heart that secretly believes in the brotherhood of man, and it was cheered yesterday by the idea that the planet was brought closer together. All the same, three minutes is a very long time to keep thinking pious thoughts. I have read that the average British male is incapable of keeping his mind off sex for more than three minutes, and it seems very likely that even in Brussels, where they devised the three minutes’ silence, there were some bureaucrats who found themselves sinking into an erotic reverie.

I rather hope they did, because there is one thing the EU can do to help the people of the Indian Ocean that is more important – in the long-term – than aid, and certainly more useful than holding three minutes’ silence, and that is to address the continuing injustice to Sri Lankan bras.

If you are an Englishwoman, the chances are that you wear a bra, and if you wear a bra, there is a very high probability that you bought that garment at Marks & Spencer, and if you bought your bra at M & S it is a racing certainty that your bra was made in Sri Lanka; and if we really mean to do anything about the noble feelings that filled our hearts yesterday, and if we want to save jobs in that disaster-hit country, 54 per cent of whose exports are textiles, then we should lift the tariffs on brassieres, or soutien-gorges, as they are known in Brussels.

It would be fair to say that the bra tax, or tariff, is not in itself the worst of the evils of the world trade system, but it will do as a symbol of a huge and chronic injustice, which affects Sri Lanka and most of the poorest countries on earth. It is a system by which the West dumps subsidised agricultural produce – sugar is a good example – on third world markets, and so destroys the livelihoods of local farmers.

It is a system so grossly protectionist that if a third world producer tries to export to the EU some kinds of processed meats, where value has been added, he can face peak tariffs of 60 or 70 per cent. It is an arrangement so unfair and so discriminatory that Oxfam estimates the total income lost to the developing world at $40 billion, and the total jobs lost at 27 million. It means that huge quantities of cash – some of which might otherwise go to third world producers – are taken in tariffs by western treasuries; and if you want to know why national treasuries are so reluctant to scrap tariffs, consider that the US makes $8.7 billion on the imports of shoes and textiles alone.

We cannot hope to scrap the entire CAP overnight, and to end all the discriminatory tariffs that face third world producers; but since there is a very good chance, as I say, that the Eurocrats have been lost in speculation about bras during the three minutes, I hope that they start there.

Let us begin by scrapping the tariffs on bras, shirts and all other textiles, currently running at 7.2 per cent, from Sri Lanka, Thailand and other flood-hit areas. It is outrageous that this bra tax should be going to Gordon Brown, and if you start to feel virtuous about the amount of aid we are giving, set that against the quantity we are taking in tariffs.

It is true that the immediate beneficiaries of a tariff cut would be the importers, and it is true that other countries – such as India and China – would protest, since they also face discriminatory tariffs. But the cuts could be spread, over time, to all the third world, and in the meantime they would stop jobs in Sri Lanka being relocated elsewhere, and encourage local industry.

All it would take is one meeting in Brussels, and less than three minutes to do.

36 thoughts on “Scrap the Tariffs on textiles from Sri Lanka, Thailand and other flood-hit areas”

  1. There is one sound NGO that campaigns for free trade and an end to subsidies and tariffs –

    The best help the Third World could get from Britain would be for them to be allowed to export their products as freely and as easily to us as we allow France or Belgium to do.

  2. A three-minute meeting in Brussels? Come off it, Boris, you know that’s never going to happen. If they could manage that, they’d have to go part-time.

  3. I disagree with public acts of ‘sympathy’ on a point of principle. Just because the majority does it, that doesn’t make it right. And why should I be told how to feel? That said, I think Boris’ suggestion on tariffs makes a lot of sense. It will surely do more good than token gestures from the floral wreath mob.

  4. Yes I agree in removing this tariff from imports of Bras. May be then we can send a couple cups of money back to SE Asia.

  5. Actually, this idea would be a great Early Day Motion. Would Boris be open to tabling it, perhaps?

  6. “Let us begin by scrapping the tariffs on bras”

    The epitome of the freigeist. You are hardcore.

  7. Alas, much trade conducted by the EU is part of a huge bloc only interested in its own self-preservation, and the same could be said for the other giants of the world economy, such as the US.

    Strangely, this runs against public pronouncements of unfettered free enterprise, which is only applied when it suits. For example, the freedom to shift call centres to India because they’re 80% cheaper, but also the freedom to charge punative tariffs on goods from the same region “to protect the interests of our farmers and manufacturers”.

    Would the current situation in SE Asia go any way to changing these attitudes, or will current sympathy to the plight of Sri Lankan bra-makers evaporate as the media gets bored with this story?

    On an entirely spearate issue: readers may wish to nominate Boris for best political blog (not to mention a few other categories) in the 2005 Bloggie Awards:

  8. Good afternoon. Upon reading the suggestion that the three minutes oberved yesterday at noon may have been too long in proportion to the two minutes “alloted” towards anually remembering our war heroes, I felt compelled to ask whether the rememberance for the tragic tsunami disaster will appear anually…SEX. I came to the conclusion (not unreasonably) that it won’t, or won’t be enforced…SEX. it somehow seems relatively proportionate for 3mins of life in this year to be conducted in silence as a mark of respect for this tradgedy (as it is unlikely that it will occur in future years), compared to the sum total of the minutes (since we have anually remembered those that died in the war via the mark of 2mins of silence) held in respect of those that perished during the war.SEX. This is not an opinion for or against the necessity of a mark of quiet to denote solidarity and respect…SEX. it is merely a reaction to the suggestion of the unequal equation of respect over distance and over time.SEX.SEX.BELGIAN.SEX.apologises.

  9. What is the point of all of these silences? What do they actually achieve? When you die.. you’re dead! All of the tributes in the world won’t change anything. Millions of people are born every day, millions of people die every day. Death is part of life. If you want to help, give money to the surviving families, DO NOT stick a poster up saying “we feel your pain”.

    In the wake of recent events, I’m a little disturbed by all of the religious types who are coming out and saying that all of these natural disasters, and all of the wars, are proof that we are living in ‘the last days’. Ooooh scary! (jesus is coming, look busy!)

    It may seem that there are more natural disasters today, but thats only because of population increases, leading to mankind inhabiting increasingly dangerous territory, plus of course, sensationalistic media coverage of anything that goes wrong.

    As for the ‘everyone thinks about sex every 3 minutes’ I can only conlude that someone has spiked the spectator water cooler 🙂

  10. ‘we are living in ‘the last days’. Ooooh scary! (jesus is coming, look busy!)’

    Of course to day is the last day of Xmas. Accoring to the church jesus has just come. He’ll be gone again by easter – so don’t worry your self? Any one know when easter is this year. I need a break just to get over easter. By the way while I’m here does any one have the slightist idea of how the church makes up their mind as to when easter is. It’s just I’ve got this image in my head of a bunch of cardinals blind folding the Pope, sticking a pin in his hand and pushing him towards a calender on the wall after spinning him around a few times. Where the pope puts the pin is easter. It’s variation of pinning the tail on the donkey…which is a favorite party game in Rome on xmas day.



    You’re back on form.. it was obvioulsy only a hic cup’

    Melli – you’re right it would seem that i have found my chuckle muscle once more….

  11. ‘As for the ‘everyone thinks about sex every 3 minutes’ I can only conlude that someone has spiked the spectator water cooler :-)’

    I hope Monkey that your being very ironic…

  12. Unfair trade rules are keeping many countries in poverty. Some products are actually on the market for less that it costs to make them.

    There are two campaigns that readers may be interested in. The first is Oxfam’s where you can read all about unfair trade practices.

    The new campaign is supported by almost 100 charities. It’s goal is somewhat grander as you can see from the domain name:
    but its a worthy goal. They suggest wearing a white armband during 2005, I suggest buying a few and washing them in rotation or they’ll smell awful by the end of the year and no-one will talk to you.

  13. The point of the two minutes silence to remember the war dead is to remind everyone how terrible war is in the hope that it never happens again. For two minutes, even our most gun-ho ploiticians have to think about the consequences of thier actions.

  14. Scaryduck

    Saw the bloggy awards site and was surprised to see a nomination section for the best ~food blog~ that’s a new one! has anyone seen a yummy food site? better not I s’pose – we needn’t start salivating and drooling over our screens

  15. Scrummy-yummy food site? You need look no further than methinks..

    Nick – talking of Easter – why are the shops full of Easter eggs already? Does this mean we get to miss Valentines day??

  16. Of course Wifey – tho’ I think of you in a wider literary sense than just food. I must admit I just have to nominate you!

  17. Awww, poor Nick. I have to confess I don’t like Valentines either, There’s something a bit false about flowers etc you get that day. At least that’s what I tell myself every year I don’t get anything!

  18. aw Nick…

    Everyone – it’s time to celebrate Valentine’s this year whether or not you get a billet doux! the song promises that love is in the air

  19. I agree about the tarrifs.

    Though I disagree with comments on 3 minute silence.

    1. There has been a 2 minute silence for 50 odd years. That’s over a hour and half of total silence for the dead who fought in wars. And that will rise as long as we remember them. We will probably only have this one off rememberance in this way across Europe for this tradgedy. Because the media will forget they will only get 3 minutes from us.

    2. The war was caused by men and out of greed, hatred and the victims where the victims of controllable action by real people.

    3. The victims of the Tsunami where not in a war, they had not chosen to put their lives forward for a war. Their politicians where not making war with anyone. It was purely a tragic act of nature that could not have been completely prevented. This, some would argue, makes them ‘more’ innocent than those who choose to make war (though this is opinion not fact).

    4. 9/11 and the Spanish bomb also got 3 minutes. Nobody complained then. This disaster caused far more suffering and pain and loss of life. Why should the victims of the Tsunami get any less?

    Also, I disagree with the comments that ‘just becuase the majority want to do it’. We live in a democracy. You do not have to take part. If the majority feel that they wish to take part then they will – and they did. They voted on the issue with their silence. For people to spout their opinions to try and disuade organisation of these things is not democratic and is a very, very worrying act. In fact, I expect many who disagree took part out of respect.

    Lastly the act of silence is a sheer act of respect. The fact that something has happened that we, in the capitilist world which stops for nothing (not even Christmas) are prepared to stop, in silence, for the slightest amount of time, and not just one or two, but nearly all of us, is of stunning impact. Anyone in Asia who sees that, or anyone anywhere who’s been effected by it will see that as a massive act of support and, more importantly, an act of recognition for what has happened. This happens in ADDITION not instead of aid and in no way prevents or devalues the aid that is offered.

    The silence is not dictating that people have to think this way or that, it is just the act that people can stop their lives just for a short space of time in respect for the tradgedy that has happened.

    In 50 years time, when they look back and show pictures of how airports, stock exchanges, shopping centers etc. just stopped for 3 minutes we will remember, from those images, just how significant this event was, and just how strongly people felt. And I expect most people will have a tear in their eye at those images and an overwhelming feeling of good human nature. And again, it’s not instead of, it’s in addition to.

  20. Yup, I agree Wifey – every day something to celebrate! preferably with a nice sit down too

    As for J Moss – important issues of respect here – something to chew on for a while – good points, thank you

  21. I ignored the 3 minute silence but if 455 million people gave 3 pounds that would be worthwhile.
    The tariffs on bras should be stopped, this is why so many British women have badly fitting bras, they are too expensive.

  22. Nick, I’m glad about the cupful of money, as I’m strapped myself but I’d like to give a little more support, cross my heart.

  23. Also I must admit that it is very unpleasant to read any sentence which contains the words “bra” along with “Gordon Brown.”

  24. Our village had a bring and buy sale last night to raise money for the victims. Our 5 year old said he didn’t think we should give them any money, because at school he’d prayed to God to help them. God was going to sort it all out, so we could keep our money.
    Sadly, I had to break his illusions, and tell him that God wasn’t actually going to build the people more houses or give them food, so we had to help with money.
    Still, at least he still believes in Santa Claus!

  25. > Also I must admit that it is very unpleasant to read any sentence which contains the words “bra” along with “Gordon Brown.”


    If you’re keeping abreast of events you’ll have seen that Tony is said to be considering replacing him. (“Will no one rid me of this turbulent chancellor?”)

    And I recall his saying that the humourless incompetent was the greatest chancellor ever in the history of this country (or was it the universe?) Apparently not, then.

  26. I don’t like the way the word ‘Respect’ gets used these days. It seems to have aquired this aura of menace to it that makes you want to obey, like a chain letter. Have a two mintue silence if you want, but don’t go around arm-twisting those who disagree. And would anyone give a monkey’s if it wasn’t on the news? If you care, donate.

  27. Perhaps the men of England, as a show of solidarity with the good people of Sri Lanka, should take to wearing M&S bra’s as they go about their daily business. Pass around the cups of plenty I say, and as an added bonus, perhaps with those increasing lingerie sales, that other Great British institution, Marks & Sparks herself, can also be brought back from the precipice of unnatural disaster…

  28. Aid and trade

    Rich countries can help poor countries by allowing them access to markets. Here’s some good news:
    The EU announced on Tuesday (11 January) that it was considering changes in its trade policy to help countries ravaged by the tsunami.

    In a statement…

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